Rev. Dr. Ryan is an ordained Unitarian minister affiliated with the Unitarian Christian Emerging Church.
I raise myself on my elbow and look down the lake. It appears pure and pristine – as it almost is! – as if fresh from the Creator’s hands. The surrounding mountains are standing proud and and austere and serene. Mountains have serenity, but not the kind I seek. Down there, just a little further away, about three miles or so, are more mountains, overlooking the ocean. They are shrouded in a light mist, a haze or light fog, reflecting the blue of the ocean. I see some gulls down near the dam, and some smaller birds which I identify as sterrins (North Atlantic terns), although both species usually confine themselves to the immediate vicinity of the ocean waters. Maybe the calm waters of the lake makes the clams and minnows and small fish an easier alternative for a meal on this day. Maybe the ocean is turbulent or maybe there are other predators. I keep reminding myself that my home village is surrounded by wilderness although we don’t usually think of it’s proximity in those terms. We are simply used to living there and are comfortable with it.
I hear voices: some people are walking on the exercise and scenic trail around the lake. They are just out of sight through a screen of brush: assorted willows, a tangle of English Raspberry, Viburnum, Red Alder, Potentilla, some of the latter still in bloom, and various other Goweddy.
These people are from the village. The old Devon accents are unmistakable. It is the language of my childhood. They are almost the voices of the men with whom I worked, here, almost fifty years ago. I believe that they are almost all passed on, now, except cousin Albert who is in his late 70s.
I was the youngest on the crew during the summer after I had graduated from high school. I had more education, then, than all of the remainder of them put together, most of them never having graced a classroom door, most of them never having read a line of print, most of them never having written a line of words and being able to endorse their meagre pay cheques only with an “X” and a witness. However, I knew that several of them could “draw” their names, the absolute limit of their literary skills.
Two or three of the men could read, after a fashion, enough to sound out the arcane words of the KJV, anyway, convinced that it was written in the language of God, the self-same God who guided the hand of the devout when they wrote the scriptures, the all-knowing One making sure that there was not one single instance of a misplaced jot or tittle and that the language if Heaven was 15th Century English.
One man, whom I called Uncle Bill, a staunch Methodist turned Pentecostalist, was able to read The Voice of Prophecy of E. W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God and who believed that the second-coming was just around the corner, making it hardly worth working at all except to keep body and soul together until the appointed day – probably before the end of summer. But, they remembered all too well – some of them a little shamefacedly – about their previous experience of premature expectation of the dawn breaking to the sound of the trumpet, heralding the advent of the Kingdom of God on earth. Oh, they still expected. There was not the shadow of doubt about that! But this time, they would be a little more cautious.
Six of seven of the men were “saved. Two or three were baptised members of the Pentecostal church; two, uniformed members of The Salvation Army; three, communicants of the United Church, these latter men preferring not to use the term “saved” at all. The other members of the crew were swearing, cigarette-smoking, beer-swiling uncouth men who delighted in singing bawdy ditties, and for no other purpose than to raise the ire of the religious men, specifically, the Pentecostal and Salvation Army ones. These latter looked to the skies, expecting – nawh! Hoping! – that the righteous hand of the Almighty, his holy ears singed by the filth and burning with righteous indignation, would reach down and squash them even while engaged in their sinful folly.
I recalled an experience of another time, when one of the elect rose to his feet to give his morning testimony: “We should be thankful for this wonderful warm, sunny, Sunday morning that the Lord has given us. Do you know that on this bright and beautiful morning, there are young people not in church? Do you know where they are? They are out playing cards, and drinking, and up to their devilment. What a wonderful time for the Lord to return – and catch them in the act!”
The United Church men simply laughed at both groups. I tried to stay out of it and to hide my amusement – by pretending to work all the harder, but not so hard, or so far away as to miss the repartee. I also noticed that Cousin would have little to say. He sucked contemplatively on his-hand made cigarette and concentrated on his work.
Did these men have serenity? Maybe the cigarette-smoking ones, those who cared for, nor feared, neither God nor mankind. The religious ones definitely did not have serenity. They were disturbed to the core of their souls, nursing a deep and abiding anger with the God who forced their holy and self-righteous selves to live in a world populated by the likes of their crude workmates and they, the religious ones, not being able to indulge in a good smoke every now and then – Well, actually, several of them did, but on the sly of both man and God, not something to be admitted to. Good thing God couldn’t see them when they hid away in the bushes on the pretext of emptying their bowels, and indulged their addiction, or that God couldn’t detect their wish to be able to enjoy some of these bawdy ditties of their earlier days, or to be able to laugh a little bit.
Did these men have wisdom? The religious ones were all but quaking in their thigh-length rubber boots that the second coming of Jesus was imminent. They couldn’t allow themselves the luxury of relaxation. God or Jesus might find them slothful.
Did these men have wisdom? The Religious ones were convinced that they were in possession of the only wisdom that counted – that of the “literal” reading of the Bible, a procedure that was going to keep them out of Hell and guarantee them a place in Heaven – a place of rest and serenity, for sure, a place that they would not have to share with their crude workmates.
If the other men had a wisdom, then it is of a variety that I was not and am not able to identify, unless it was their defiance of the fates and their devil-may-care attitudes. But, they did have the wisdom, wherever it came from, to reject the soul-destroying mind-numbing Calvinist theology offered by the local churches.
I lived for about six months in an apartment complex in the Chao Yang district of Beijing. Four, 40-story, luxury apartment complexes were being constructed nearby. I would look down from my 9th floor window at the workmen. In the blistering and merciless sun, generating 37 or 38 degrees (100 F) in the shade these poor men were trying to work. From my air-conditioned comfort, I would watch as they tried to drag themselves around, actually getting little else done other than getting in each other’s way.
Just to the side of the construction site was a series of three-story temporary buildings which provided lodging for the workers, almost all of whom were from the far flung rural areas of China. Most or all of these men would not be able to visit their families, their wives, children, parents for no more than once or twice a year and, even then, for only a few days. I recalled the men of my village who were sailors, their wives raising children all alone, their husbands being home for only two or so months out of a year.
Did these men have serenity, or was serenity possible in that situation? One supposes that they were exercising a certain pragmatic wisdom in taking a job – however far away from home – which was, likely, their one option of caring for their families … But what a price they had to pay!
At Linfen, a city of about four million people, at ShanXi Province, west of Beijing, I saw the following quote prominently displayed on the wall of a government office:
In English it says, more or less, “Mothers raise the children. Children do not know their fathers. They leave before sunrise and return after sunset.”
I could identify with the sentiment. Maybe my own situation was even more severe. I grew up on the north east coast of Newfoundland, where the traditional occupations were engaging in the “Labrador” fishery and cutting pulp logs for the Bowater Mersey paper mills in Europe. A popular saying in the cluster of villages around my home village was almost the same thing, except that our fathers were gone to the Labrador from Mid-May to Mid-October, and were in the lumber woods from mid-November to mid-April, being home for only two weeks during Christmas and New years. An analogous situation still obtains for many families in my home area even today. So the same question should be asked of our fathers as for the Chinese fathers: Did they/ do they achieve serenity?
One supposes that they must have – or must still – achieve serenity of a type. Otherwise, how can they work? How can they overcome loneliness and nostalgia for their families?
Given that most of these men have few or rather rudimentary literacy skills on which to rely, assuming such skills might have some utility, then one option left open for them was not to think. Do as they are told and retreat into themselves. Try not to remember. Try not to think. Eventually, they succeed in quelling the only aspect of themselves that makes them human, namely, their thinking processes and their emotions. Some men, today, who have to leave home for extended periods lose themselves in consorting with prostitutes in their craving for intimacy, and in consuming copious amounts of alcohol, in their craving for relaxation. But many do not engage in these activities, maybe for no other reason than they feel too strongly the obligation to send money home to their families. So, they die inside in order to survive. They do their jobs but they do not think. If they permitted themselves to feel, they would likely be overcome by stress and depression and, then, be of no value to themselves or their families, according to their own severe self-judgement.
Neuroscientists now acknowledge what some of us in the “counseling trade” have known – or, at least, suspected – for a long time: stress causes brain damage; depression is a symptom of brain damage. Depression, and not necessarily that labelled “clinical,” is a sign that the brain is no longer able to cope with all of the psychic, emotional and cognitive dissonance contained in the assaults on it. Damage occurs, actual physical damage. The brain produces nitric oxide as a necessary ingredient to clean up dead cells in the brain. Maybe stress causes an increase in this substance which destroys cells or neuronal connections or damages the synapses. Whatever happens, the physical structure of the brain has been altered in a manner which causes dysfunction. Dysfunction takes the form of depression, sometimes severe depression, and traumatic stress disorders. Parts of the brain are no longer able to function normally. The condition is debilitating. Dysfunction is obvious, at least to the owner of the brain. Many of the person’s normal activities can no longer be effected expeditiously, and maybe not at all. The person can no longer think normally; analysis is extremely difficult, even painful, maybe impossible; reading may be difficult or maybe the skill no longer exists; writing requires more effort and brain power than is available or can be accessed, or even exists.
Some people experience such severe cognitive dysfunction that the victim exhibits dementia-type and Alzheimers-type problems. A well-educated man who is was later able to articulate his experienced provided this description after the death of a family member for whom he provided care for a number of years. “When she died, I was exhausted – in every possible way: physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychically. I felt almost no emotion, nothing but a profound weariness. I always talked with her gently. I don’t know if I had any compassion remaining because I am not sure that I had any emotional energy remaining. I had clamped my emotions, I suppose in order to survive. If one permits emotions to erupt, then the emotions make such a demand on energy that there would be no energy remaining for the caring, for the bathing and feeding and changing bandages and keeping the medical equipment clean and functioning, not to forget that the house had to be kept clean, cooking had to be done and meals prepared, laundry had to be done, and shopping had to be done for groceries.
I lost my ability to write; I could no longer read; I couldn’t watch TV; I couldn’t complete simple informational forms to claim medical insurance. A neighbour had to help me. When I tried to think, it was like I had simply entered a dark room. Where, at one time, there had been active, lively, cognitive processes, ready to spring into action, able to make instant connections to numerous learning and study and other experiences, now there was nothing. There were no “handles” to grasp to begin the cognitive process, no switches to turn on. There were no connections to begin the thinking process. Eventually, almost all but the basic cognitive processes ceased. I could no longer function except to do the routines that I had established for caring for my very ill loved one. I no longer had the energy to hide my weariness from her. I was already dead. My head, normally light, full of light, full of activity, became a dead weight on my shoulders. I could hardly carry it around. My doctor was concerned about me and did her best to keep me from committing suicide. She knew that the danger was high. I no longer cared about what happened to me. I continued to live only because there was no one else to care for my loved one. Other than my doctor, no one was caring for me.
After the death, I went to my doctor again. She told me that I had severe dementia and that it would take a long time to recover from my multiple dysfunctions. I couldn’t understand or follow written instructions; I couldn’t follow oral directions. If I needed to go somewhere in my car, I had to get someone to write down the street directions for me.
I slowly slipped into a very deep abyss. I could not control it. Eventually, knowing that suicide was the only other option, I had sufficient awareness to go to a psychiatrist who started me on a program of medication.
That was when I heard, for the first time, that, in fact, I had brain damage. I had not only forgotten the names of friends, I forget that they existed; I had forgotten promises that I had made; I had forgotten where my “stuff” was. As most people will recognize, our stuff, our things, books, whatever, define us, helps us define ourselves. Much of our identity resides in our things, the familiar things that we have around us.
It took two years for my functioning to return to some semblance of normalcy, until my brain finally healed sufficiently for me to discover the foundations of my old self again. Well, it wasn’t really my old self. I had changed too much. When the new connections grew in the brain, I guess, they didn’t follow the same pathways as the old connections. Different connections, different me. But, at least, it is a self that I recognize and that I am comfortable with, and a self on which I can build a satisfying identity. I am still working on that task.”
One can easily suspect that a similar situation developed in Germany during WWII – for both the Jews and for other German civilians, those who committed much of the genocidal atrocity. I am not trying to condone anything. I am trying to explain. In fact, that Holocaust sickens me, the very thought of what we, as people, are prepared to do to other people traumatizes me. I am traumatized by my knowledge of it, much as I am traumatized by the holocaust inflicted on the Huguenots by the Roman church. After years of trying to cope in Hitler’s society, and not being welcome any place else in the world, not even in the US or Canada, the Jews, eventually, were no longer able to fight their own despair. Thus, they submitted to the inevitable, incapable of doing anything else, not even able to fight back.
We, as a society, continue to be surprised when some tragedy happens at a workplace. We are hypocrites! Some supervisory people exert subtle and persistent pressure on underlings that they do not want around, usually because the subordinates are better than they are. Eventually, the victimized subordinate is exhausted, and resigns. Psychopaths in such supervisory positions can wreck absolute havoc on individual lives by a concerted program of dehumanizing pressure tactics, until the employee cracks under the constant pressure. Sometimes, the victimized employee resorts to violence and, sometimes, gets a gun and shoots indiscriminately.
It is not difficult for the “higher ups,” the suits of a company, who wish to look, can discover who is being victimized. Usually, it is the best, the brightest, the most creative and most hard-working employees who are crucified in this manner. They are the ones who most threaten those who are their immediate – insecure – superordinates, simply by their being. They may also be the oddballs, the nonconformists, those who do not toe the line of the “company culture” because, quite frankly, the company culture is usually rotten at the core. If a company is focusing diligently and over-zealously for “team players,” you know that they are trying to paste over dysfunctionality. They are looking for people who will not ask questions, who will not rock the boat, even if many questions should be asked and if the boat should be rocked until everyone becomes seasick and admits to problems. Any CEO or supervisory person who is seeking “team players” should be replaced immediately! He or she does not know what their jobs are and don’t want anyone to come aboard who will show them up.
(If the reader is interested in who psychopaths are and how they operate, look at some of the work of Robert D. Hare, a Canadian researcher.)
I lie back on the tough grasses, my sandals kicked off. I place my hat over my eyes, pretending to myself that I am going to sleep there in this Heavenly setting, warm, shaded by the deciduous trees, the birches and aspens. It is about 25C, a hot day in my village in that northern clime. I begin to reminisce about all of the canoe trips that I have taken here on this lake … on those balmy days when my cousin and I would simply paddle around the perimeter of the lake seeing what we could find, beach-combing in my DNA.
Suddenly, my leg is all afire as if someone had doused it with gasoline and tossed a match. I quickly stand up, confused. Then, I discovered that I had accidentally kicked in the side of a nest of red ants, and they are not in a pleasant mood. They are now swarming my right leg and beginning an assault on the left. There are thousands of them, I am sure. My right leg is a mass of red, and they are biting. They were getting uncomfortably close to certain parts of me that I would just as soon they not start biting. I quickly retrieved my wallet from the back pocket of my walking shorts, tossed it on the grass, and ran, pell-mell, for the water. I ran out to my knees and, having enough water depth to cover me, I dived.
Ants are not partial to being in the water, even though they seem to like to have nests near the water. I swam underneath the water for as long as I could hold my breath – maybe 20 feet. When I surfaced I saw a trail of struggling ants along the surface of the water.
It was only a matter of moments before their struggling attracted curious fish, first minnows (thorn-backs), then trout. A feeding frenzy developed as the trout hurried to gobble up this unexpected repast. I bobbed, there in the warm, slowly treading water. As I watched, I became aware of larger fish which had been attracted by the noisy trout. As they rolled in the water, eating whatever happened in their mouths, minnows, trout and ants, I recognized what we used to call, as boys, Landlocked Salmon, generally considered inedible because their flesh is, generally, white. I believe that these are the same fish that we now call Quininish. At least one was quite large, at least two feet long.
I know! I know! A fish story!
Leaving nature to nature, I slowly swim toward the small dock, climbed up, examined my damaged legs, took off my walking shorts and wrung them out and laid them on the hot boards to dry in the sun. Then I did the same with my undies, and lay down on the sun-washed planks and allowed myself to dry off.
I heard voices. I listened. As soon as my undies were a little dry, I retrieved them and slipped them on. They would dry on me as quickly as off, and I might be spared some embarrassment if I should have some visitors. I quite near one of the popular walking trails, after all.
As I lay there, I wondered about the instant anger and the vicious response of the ants. Then, my mind went back to some observations that I had made in China, namely that so many people seemed to be carrying such a load of anger. On further reflection, I acknowledged that I was being unfair to the Chinese because so many other people whom I had come in contact with, in Canada and the US, also seemed to have an enormous anger, just below the surface, hardly contained, ready to erupt at seemingly the slightest provocation.
I though that I could explain some of the Chinese anger, given their history – ancient and contemporary – but what explanation for a similar build up of anger in wealthy North America, those lands of opportunity? Even my little home village was not immune to this phenomenon.
I began to recall some of the comments that I had, for some reason, stored in my memory banks. People of all ages seem to be angry about, well … about everything.
“How can we achieve serenity” I asked myself, “if we are carrying so much anger?”
We seem to learn to be angry rather early in life. We begin learning while we are suckling, reacting angrily if taken away from the teat earlier than we want – and some of us seem to want to stay on the teat, in one form or another, for most of our lives.
I saw a video on TV news of a child or about three years who, reacting to a provocation from the mother, called the mother a “Bitch.” She was learning her lessons well!
Boys are angry because they consider themselves less handsome than others; girls because they are less beautiful, wrong complexion, nose not pert, breasts too small (BBC YV carried a story that some idiot man in England was going to give his 14 year old daughter breast implants for her birthday!), boyfriends not as well endowed in one way or another, maybe not having Dad’s car to drive. It is difficult for young people not to be angry, given the pornographic image of normalcy that they are immersed in from print and other media. Porn is not only that having to do with portrayal of naked flesh! Almost no young person can measure up to these popular images. They are false. It is porn!
All are angry because they are not as smart as someone else, angry about their schools, angry about their teacher – who have their own angers, including being angry because their students don’t study enough and are making them look bad. Students are angry because Mom and Dad are never at home and they have to make their own meals. (A school district in New York State did a phone survey in order to determine how many students were actually at home on a particular week-night. It turned out that the vast majority of students were at home – but parents were not.)
Mom and Dad are angry because their children are not intelligent, are not studying, are not doing well at school, not interested in anything much except music, video games, fast cars, junk food, maybe sports and the opposite sex.
Parents are angry that daughter is pregnant or son has a girl knocked up, even though the parents have been playing rather loose with their own sexuality and marital fidelity ever since son and daughter have been in diapers.
Dad is angry because his teen has his car, and that his teen drinks. Dad is angry because of the possibility that his teen might have a DUI accident, even though there is hardly a time when there is no smell of alcohol on Dad’s breath, driving or no.
Mom is angry because a “spot” has shown up on an x-ray, even though she has smoked almost all of her life. They are both angry because someone has suggested that they should take some responsibility. They don’t want to take responsibility. They want to be free to play, to be irresponsible, and they are angry that there are repercussions and inevitable consequences. “It is so unfair,” they lament.
Dad is angry because his stocks are under-performing, even though he deliberately chose high-risk stocks because of the potential high rate of return. He is angry that his car needs repairs, that his doctor tells him that he has to lose 75 pounds and his beer belly, that he is in the initial stages of diabetes, that he has to give up beer and chips and cigars and cigarettes and hard liquor and gooey pastries, and eat more fresh vegetables and fruit. It is just so unfair!
Mom is worried that her parents are dying, too quickly, because she really meant to visit them more. They are just across town. Dad is angry because his parents are not dying quickly enough. He is tired of looking after them, even though he hasn’t seen them in over three months. They live just in the next town. If only they would die so that he could sell their house. That money would solve all of his problems. He has wanted to spend a month a year in Mexico all of his life.
I recall the news story of the elderly couple who had died in the elevator of a senior care residence (senior care?) somewhere in the mid-west (Chicago?) The son, when contacted, said, “I didn’t know they had any problems. They seemed all right when I spoke with them on the phone, six months ago.”
One lady is angry because she didn’t get all of Dad’s money when he passed. He had the unmitigated gall to leave a little bit – less that 10% – to a charity. Another is angry because she didn’t get that favourite plate of her mother’s. Another sibling has it.
One is angry because it is snowing; another because there is not enough; another because the rain is too early, the other because it is not early enough.
One is angry because their parents die, they experience illness, they lose their jobs, they didn’t get the promotion they thought they deserved (even if they didn’t make the effort to increase their skills). “It is all so unfair,” we cry.
Wives are angry because their husbands are not perfect (high standards, there, lady!); husbands angry because they do not have a trophy wife, paragons of beauty and elegance. And, when they do, they are angry because of the high maintenance.
(Remember the Canadian man who wanted all of the world to know the nubile body that he had access to? He convinced his beautiful girlfriend to send nude photos to Playboy magazine. Now, the beautiful lady is in Hefner’s harem. But, supposedly, her erstwhile boyfriend can console his anger with the photos in Playboy?)
There is an absolutely endless list of all of the reasons why people are so darn angry!
Serenity? Where is the serenity? How can people find serenity when they are drowning is a sea of anger? People seem to be angry in so many ways that they are addicted to anger. They have succeeded in rearranging the structure of their brain and altering its chemical stability. They have brain damage. These people could not become serene however much they think they want to, or whoever hard they try, not in any short term, anyway, because they have damaged their brains much too much by toxic thinking over such a long time … and they are likely not going to invest the time and effort in what it will take to restore their brain to normalcy. Besides, medication is cheaper, even if it is not, ultimately, effective by itself. The medication is their excuse not to do more.
The Mahayana Buddhists explain that they are seeking freedom from problems and to achieve happiness that they can be confident of in the long term. Like them, we also seem to have some image of what we might want to call serenity. But, whatever we call it, somewhere in our beings we are motivated by the desire to pursue serenity, even we regularly sabotage our potential for achieving it.
Again, like the Mahayana Buddhists, following what they perceive to be the fundamental teachings of Buddha, we also, when we give ourselves the necessary permission to think about these things, want some understanding of the fundamental nature of things and what we must do attain our happiness-based objectives or, at least, the objectives which we want to believe will result in our happiness.
Here, I have talked about wisdom and serenity as the two wings we need, if we are to soar, as on the wings of an eagle, towards our ultimate goal. The Buddhists believe that they can, thus, achieve the perfection of Buddha-hood. Many progressive Christians purse the same goal but use different words to describe it: to realize our full divinity.
Maybe, unlike the Buddhists, progressive Christians believe that their objectives can be achieved by continuously engaging with the world, and that withdrawing from the world, in any form resembling monk-hood, is unnecessary. However, many progressive Christians recognize the value of limited-time retreat and moderate amounts of meditation. But neither of these spiritual practices should ever be permitted to become ends in themselves.
If we are to be successful in our spirituality, it will be through engagement with the world, total eyes-wide-open engagement.
Neither is it, we believe, necessary to develop esoteric concepts or use arcane language. We do, however, accept that we pursue our spiritual development without obstructions of mind and without fear, conditions which, we acknowledge, would take time and effort to cultivate and develop.
Unlike the teachings of the Buddha many progressive Christians do not conceive of emptiness as the ultimate nature of reality. Indeed, we see ultimate reality as being more akin to universal energy – more like Taoist teachings – which may be no more than another name for God. Maybe, Buddhists will explain that we are really talking about the same thing. So be it!
If our objective is to attain serenity and wisdom, it will likely take more than lying by a pleasant lake for a couple of hours when the occasion arises. Besides, for many people, their current stage of spirituality is at a rather low level, it would seem, if it is characterized by a significant degree of profound anger. Anger leaves little or no room for spirituality to exist in the tortured soul. Profound, wide-spread anger, has likely developed over a long period of time. It is unlikely that one will be able to overcome, in a short period of time, the toxic habits of thought in which one has engaged for, maybe, decades. It is, however, a matter of attempting to re-organize one’s life on a new set of practices, reorganize one’s thinking along new avenues, develop a wholesome discipline of the self in order to maintain the semblance of normalcy, and learn to live in moderation. If that is our goal, then along the way we have to try to recognize and then abandon the psychological crutches that we have relied on to continue to feel something in one’s soul: Alcohol, sex, tobacco, food, sweets, infidelity, gambling, “entertainment,” trips to Vegas or Atlantic City or Macou, tripping, TV soaps and sports, and so on. It is simply amazing the number of mechanisms that we humans have developed in order to avoid meeting ourselves the way we really are.
It will be necessary to do some inventory of who we are if we decide to begin the process of pursuing who we want to become. We have to recognize that, “If we always do what we always done, we’ll always get what we always got.” (I read that somewhere!)
In the first instance, maybe one should seek the services of a psychologist or well-qualified counsellor, not, generally, a clergy person who is a counsellor until one examines that person’s credentials. Many people offering themselves as counsellors, including many clergy, have do idea what they are doing and are likely to do more harm than good.
It is likely that most people who have multiple addictions or multiple psychological crutches are suffering from depression and anxiety. All those activities and substances are attempts at self-medication. A General practitioner or a psychiatrist may decide to subscribe some kind of anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety medications to lower the sense of frenzy and emptiness that one has tried to self-medicate with alcohol, food, sex, gambling, the fast life …………
Then, one needs counselling. The medication will help calm one down and enable the brain to restore itself if given sufficient time and conducive circumstances. Medication cannot, however, take the place of counselling or psychotherapy. Psychiatrists are not, usually, trained counsellors or psychotherapists. Even if they were, most people would not be able to afford them.
Contingent on the number and extent of dependencies one has to overcome in order to restore oneself to a basis on which one can construct wholeness, the process may take several years. Think of it in terms of hospitalization. Major surgery can take a long time to make a complete recuperation. Usually, with psychological dependencies, we are talking about multiple problems – multiple “psychic surgeries” that have to be performed: denying sustenance to the old addictions, old habits, old toxic ways of thinking, thus forcing the associated neuronal pathways to atrophy, while, at the same time, attempting to construct new, healthy habits of thought and behaviour and living that will permit and encourage the growth of new neuronal pathways.
It takes time, maybe quite a lot of time, for the brain to determine where it is the new axons should be growing to, which axons to deny nutrition to in order to change the nature and operation of the neurotransmitters and, thus, create new synapses while manufacturing and directing nitric oxide to the old, now unused, axons and synapses in order to reabsorb them into the body.
Most people seem not to realize, refuse to believe, the amount of time that it takes to restructure the brain. People are so used to the fictions that they see on TV that they expect magic bullets, quick fixes, fail-safe medications. There are none!
There may be associated losses. One may have to cut ties with old drinking companions, sex partners, gambling buddies and so on. One may have to say, “I don’t go there any more.” There is always a price to pay for the habits that we have developed and for the restoration of our psyches so that we can have a chance at the serenity that we seek. Some people, many people, consider the price of the latter to be much too high. In any case, they will pay the price of the former. They have no choice. It is called homoeostasis; it is called inevitable consequences – physical, emotional, psychological, economic, relationships – the natural order of things over which we have no control. A life of alcohol consumption will, more than likely, result in sclerosis of the liver, and so on.
In my role of psycho-counsellor, I chatted with a young man who was already on a steep incline path to, I felt, a lot of unhappiness. He was already drowning in alcohol the memory of one failed marriage. I suggested that he see a psychiatrist as an initial step towards pursuing wholeness. His response, “You can’t drink while you are taking those medications, can you?” I acknowledged that that would be unwise. When I mentioned counselling, he responded, “Beer is cheaper.”
Clearly, I had made an error. Spiritual development, or positive development of any kind, was not one of his priorities. He was not spiritually ripe for what I had suggested.
The taking responsibility for oneself that is imperative if one is to pursue wholeness (another name for spirituality) will, undoubtedly, at least initially, be painful. Withdrawal of any kind always is. Maybe regrettably, most of the process of leaving behind the paradigm of blame and self-blame and addictions will require a series of cold-turkey experiences. I wish I could say that I knew of another way, but I do not. Some people think that there is some sort of laser treatment, as there is supposed to be to help people stop smoking, or some kind of nicotine patch for all of the other addictions. If there are, they are being kept under wraps. The bottom line is, if one is going to embark on a new life, there may be some wrenching experiences as one attempts the transformation.
The necessary counselling and psychotherapy will likely require a session a week for a minimum of two years. If one has already done some of the work – maybe by reading some self-help books, taking courses in anger management, and so on – the process may be a little easier but not likely to be any shorter. We are talking about a process that is designed to alter the physical structure of the brain. It is not a fast process. However, the good news is that that brain is highly plastic, and it can be done!
(The reader can find numerous books on brain plasticity and counselling/psychotherapy in almost any book store, street-side or on-line.)
I have become aware that the world has fallen silent. There is almost no wind. The rustling of the new leaves of the nearby trees have stilled. The birds have ceased their quarrelling and their singing and chirping; that squirrel is no longer scolding me. I had heard a woodpecker for some time but she seems to be listening, also. Else, it has gone home with some saw bugs or grubs to feed its little ones. The only sounds I hear is the gentle lapping of the water around the pilings of the dock and some insects that seems to be rubbing its legs or wings together, not having being successful, yet, in finding a mate.
Some voices echo from across the lake. It’s amazing how quickly and purely sound travels across water. I raise myself on my elbow. Some fishermen, two canoes, are on their way back from a fishing expedition from across the lake, maybe from Crusher Bottom or Dillon’s Pond. They are now in almost the exact spot where I took a spill three summers ago. I overturned my canoe and lost my fishing gear and my new Canon 12mp camera that had cost me over $600. That stuff is still across there on the bottom. It was a fairly long swim to shore. I had always been a pretty good swimmer, even if my style cannot be categorized. I learned to swim, here in this lake. I have affection for it.
I feel my back burning in the sun. That is not very wise! I retrieve my walking shorts. They are almost dry. I looked at the sky. Thunder clouds were piling up in the south west. The north decline of Hazelnut Hill is in deep shadow. Prudence dictated that I might want to remove myself from the immediate vicinity.
I retrieved my wallet and the meagre wealth it contained. Put on my sandles and shirt. I retrieved my book: “Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality” by B. Alan Wallace and Brian Hodel (Shambhala, 2011). I had not even opened it.
I quickly headed back the trail for the 10-minute walk to the parking lot and my car.
My mother was a very wise woman. She still is. She would say, when, as a boy, I did something stupid, “You haven’t got sense to come in out of the rain!”
On this occasion, I did. I needed to get to my cottage as quickly as I could so that I could apply antibiotic ointment to all of those dozens of ant bites on my legs.
That, at least for the moment, counts as wisdom.
Maybe, serenity will come later. It’s hard to be serene when one’s legs are all afire from ant bites.